Letter from King of Johor, Abdul Jalil Shah IV (r. 1699-1720), to Governor-General Abraham van Riebeeck, 26 April 1713

Introduced Peter Borschberg

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The old Sultanate of Johor, which is sometimes also referred to as the Johor-Riau Sultanate, was founded in the first half of the sixteenth century by the deposed Sultan of Melaka and his heirs. Among the Malay courts and rulers proper.This was how it was later also seen by the early European colonial powers in the region, Johor was just one of the polities competing to assert its role as the heir to Melaka. Until the end of the sixteenth century, its ruler was sometimes referred to as the ‘Emperor of the Malay Kings’.[1]

At the zenith of its prestige and authority between the late sixteenth and the early eighteenth century, the Johor-Riau sultanate commanded the allegiance of peoples who lived across spread across an impressive geographical area spanning the southern portions of the Malay Peninsula, the Riau Archipelago (including present-day Singapore), the Anambas, Tambelan and Natuna island groups, a region around the Sambas River on south-western Borneo and Siak in central-eastern Sumatra.[2] It also claimed as its dependencies the peoples ruled by the rulers of Kampar, the bendahara of Pahang and Terengganu. Among its early seventeenth-century allies was the ruler of Champa, whose authority covered parts of present-day southern Vietnam. The ruler of Champa had converted to Islam and entered into formal relations with Johor in or around 1606, and close relations were maintained thereafter for several decades.[3]

The complexity of the population mix as well as the geographical reach of the Johor-Riau sultanate shaped the nature of this sprawling polity and helps explain two facets of particular interest to the present context. The first point is that the Johor–Riau sultanate was politically complex and arguably multi-polar. It was characteristic of Malay polities of the pre-modern period that rulers focused on people, not on land or territories, and allegiance structures proved fluid.[4] This is something European observers at the time found particularly challenging to grasp. Because of the fluidity of personal allegiances, there were also many grey areas in the geographical compass of a given polity, especially at the fringes: datu and local overlords were known to pay tribute and allegiance to more than one overlord at the same time. A close reading of Dutch-language materials shows that one of the problem areas which had emerged between the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Johor in the first two decades of the eighteenth century had to do with one such great area known as Patapahan. The VOC claimed it paid annual tribute to the Minangkabau ‘Emperor’ in Sumatra while the Johor Sultan insisted that the people of Patapahan fell under his rule.[5]

The Johor-Riau sultanate had maintained generally friendly relations with the VOC since the early 1600s dating back to an ad hoc alliance formed between Sultan Ala’udin Ri’ayat Shah III and the Dutch admiral Jacob van Heemskerk (1567-1607). Johor was among the first Asian powers to dispatch a diplomatic mission to the Dutch Republic in 1603.[6] When the surviving members of the Johor embassy returned with the fleet of Admiral Matelieff three years later, two formal treaties between Johor and the VOC were ratified  in May and September 1606.[7]

The close of the seventeenth century saw the assassination on 3 September 1699 of the eccentric and heirless Mahmud Shah II (1685-1699), the last Johor ruler of the Melaka dynastic line. On the advice of the late Sultan Mahmud’s uncle, the Temenggong of Muar, the orang kaya decided to proclaim Mahmud’s cousin, the Bendahara (Treasurer) Abdul Jalil, the heir to the throne of Johor. He thereafter ruled as Abdul Jalil Shah IV (r. 1699-1720). But in some quarters in Johor, there were doubts about this choice and some seized the opportunity to stir up trouble. The Orang Laut were dissatisfied because they thought the elevation of the bendahara to sultan had not been conducted in the proper manner.[8] The Bugis, who were already well established in Johor and had distinguished themselves during the Jambi Wars in the second half of the seventeenth century, seized the opportunity presented by this succession crisis to claim more power for the Bugis Raja Muda (alias Yang di Pertuan Muda, the ‘junior king‘). The widespread uncertainty and unhappiness over the installation of the former bendahara as the new ruler of Johor had resulted in several uprisings which fuelled more uncertainty and seriously threatened Johor-Riau from within. Moreover, Siamese naval action off the coast of Terengganu, supposedly targeted against piracy, put Johorese officials on their toes, spurred the strengthening of fortifications (especially on and around Bintan) and aroused the anxiety that Johor might soon become the target of a fresh naval campaign by Siam.[9]

These considerations led up to the more immediate context of the present document. At the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century, the long-standing and cordial relationship between the VOC and the Johor-Riau Sultanate had come under strain. The immediate flashpoint in these strained relations were divergent interpretations of the wording of Article 3 of the VOC-Johor Treaty of 1689.[10] The Raja Muda objected to Dutch free burghers from Melaka entering the Siak River region to trade, above all to their presence in Patapahan. Article 4 of the 1689 treaty permitted ‘ships from Melaka‘ to call and trade at Patapahan for a fixed duty payable to the Johor shahbandar. The Johorese side argued that Article 3 stipulated that the right to come to trade in Siak was reserved for the VOC and not for the Melaka free burghers, and that the people of Patapahan were subjects of Johor. The VOC disagreed, arguing that the people of Patapahan paid tribute to the Minangkabau ‘Emperor’ and not Johor. Tension rose on both sides and each impounded commercial vessels under various pretexts. Keen to settle the matter, the VOC despatched a negotiating team to Johor to seek a way out of the impasse and  at the same time negotiate a new treaty with Johor. The Dutch envoys departed from Melaka in early January 1713 with clear instructions from the Dutch governor to secure free access and free trade in Siak for both the VOC and citizens of Melaka. The Raja Muda was deeply irritated not only by the obduracy displayed by the Dutch envoys in pushing for the renegotiation of key terms in the treaty, but also by the evident reluctance (even sheer unwillingness) of the Dutch to observe Malay diplomatic etiquette. The Raja Muda complained about the terse and deeply offensive language used in the Melaka governor’s letters and sought to cover up his own vacillating position in the negotiations by blaming, among other causes, the translator for not understanding him.[11]

The Raja Muda was also offended by the Dutch on a different front: they had begun to charge tolls on Johorese ships at Melaka – these had been expressly exempted from such tolls under Article 3 of the 1689 treaty - and the Dutch had also impounded a Johorese vessel off the Coromandel Coast of India. These actions were deeply offensive in the Malay cultural context, as they indicated that the Dutch were impacting negatively  on the raja’s nama or reputation, and nama was essential to Malay kingship and a key to merit in his afterlife.[12] Dutch reports noted that the Johorese were preventing Javanese vessels from calling at Melaka, and wereinstead re-routing them to trade in the port of Riau instead (present-day Tanjung Pinang on the island of Bintan).[13]

This, combined with the stated unwillingness to negotiate with such junior Dutch officials, prompted the Raja Muda to open direct negotiations with Batavia. An embassy led by the Johor Laksamana, Seri Nara di Raja, arrived in Batavia on 26 April, 1713. The following letter from Abdul Jalil IV addressed to Governor-General Abraham van Riebeeck (1709-1713) was presented. In this the Sultan professed his deep respect, affection for the VOC and by invoking it reminded Van Riebeeck of of their long-standing mutual relationship which stretched back to the early seventeenth century. The Sultan also used the opportunity to reiterate his interpretation of Article 3 of the 1689 VOC-Johor Treaty, explaining that the right of access and free trade granted to the Dutch in Siak had been strictly limited to the Company and did not extend to either the free burghers or the residents of Melaka. Then came the question of the vessel intercepted off the Coromandel Coast of India. The Dutch promised to return the vessel and the confiscated cargo.[14]

The Sultan was executing a delicate balancing act and he was not unaware of his difficult negotiating position. Apart from being a polite gesture, his invocation of enduring friendship with the VOC contrasts sharply with earlier threats by the Raja Muda about possibly seeking to make a new treaty with the French – one of the enemies of the Dutch Republic during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Since the beginning of the eighteenth century the French had been consolidating their interests in the region around the Bay of Bengal, including especially Tenasserim and Kedah.. Foreign trade in Riau, it would appear, was not exactly flourishing at the time and might have been affected negatively by the European war. Certainly the Sultan would also have realized that it was not wise to alienate the Dutch in the face of a possible Siamese attack on Johor. Just how tenuous his negotiating position must have been transpires from his request for Dutch permission to send more shiploads of rice to Johor. The report of Governor-General Van Riebeeck to the Board of Directors of the VOC dated 13 January 1713, reports that between twenty and thirty Javanese vessels had already brought cargoes of rice and salt to ports in Johor, including Bengkalis and Lingga.[15] The request for supplementary cargoes, however, was turned down by the VOC on the grounds that the famine was affecting the whole region.

[1] P. Borschberg, “Jacques de Coutre as a Source for the Early 17th Century History of Singapore, the Johor River, and the Straits”, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 81.2 (2008), p. 90 n97; Borschberg, The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century (Singapore and Leiden: NUS Press and KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 226, 323 n155.

[2] M.A.P. Meilink-Roelofsz, Asian Trade and European Influence in the Indonesian Archipelago between 1500 and about 1630. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962,  139, described a more limited expanse of the Johor sultan’s authority.

[3] Concerning Champa in the early 17th century, see also I.A. Taveres Mourão, Portugueses em Terras do Dai-Viêt (Cochinchina e Tun Kim), 1615-1660.Macao: Instituto Português do Oriente and Fundação Oriente, 2005, 40-7.

[4] A.C. Milner, Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule.Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982, 6.

[5] Andaya, L.Y., The Kingdom of Johor, 1641-1728: Economic and Political Developments. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975, 222-223.

[6] Borschberg, The Singapore and Melaka Straits, 122.

[7] F.W. Stapel and J.E. Heeres, Heeres, J.E., ed., “Corpus Diplomaticum Neërlando-Indicum. Verzameling van politieke contracten en verdere verdragen door de Nederlanders in het Oosten gesloten, van privilegiebrieven, aan hen verleend, enz.”, eerste deel (1596-1650), Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde van Nederlandsch Indië,57 (1907), 45-47.

[8] Concerning this episode, see E. Netscher, De Nederlanders in Djohor en Siak. Batavia: Bruining & Wijt, 1870, 47 et seq.

[9] Andaya, The Kingdom of Johor, pp. 217-218.

[10] Netscher, De Nederlanders in Djohor en Siak, p. 46.

[11] Andaya, The Kingdom of Johor, 220-225.

[12] Andaya, The Kingdom of Johor, 226; concerning the quest for nama by the Malay rulers, see A.C. Milner, Kerajaan, 104-6, and Milner, The Malays (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 66-7; also J.H. Walker, “Autonomy, Diversity, and Dissent: Conceptions of Power and Sources of Action in the Sejarah Melayu (Raffles MS 18)”, Theory and Society, 33.2 (2004),  213.

[13] W.Ph. Coolhaas, ed., Generale Missiven van Gouvverneurs-Generaal en Raden aan Heren XVII der Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, dl. VI (1698-1713) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976), 901, report of Van Riebeeck to the Heren XVII, 13 January 1713.

[14] Andaya, The Kingdom of Johor, 227.

[15] W.Ph. Coolhaas, ed., Generale Missiven, dl. VI (1698-1713), 902.

Peter Borschberg, “Letter from King of Johor, Abdul Jalil Shah IV (r. 1699-1720), to Governor-General Abraham van Riebeeck, 26 April 1713”. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOCArchives in Jakarta, document 7. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2013.